Maintaining our course

Peter Ho

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A newspaper reported early this year that the University Grants Committee (UGC), in its current review of higher education in Hong Kong, is planning to "reposition" the existing eight tertiary institutions into two categories: research and teaching universities.

The news, though yet to be confirmed, has caused great consternation among academics and administrators in the higher education sector, not least at CityUniversity. What are the likely ramifications for CityU if such a two-tier system is put in place? Will our academic profile, institutional mission and, ultimately, long-held commitment to Hong Kong society have to be re-examined, in light of the possible policy change?

Without alluding to the media report or the outcome of the purported UGC review, the President, Professor H K Chang, in his latest monthly chat with Linkage, put the discussion in a larger perspective. Fundamentally, he said, the issue is: What should CityU be known for? And, what is the defining characteristic that sets CityU apart from its sister institutions in Hong Kong?

Should CityU be just known for a few academic disciplines? Some social critics and educational commentators, the President said, would have us believe that CityU lacks the unique academic disciplines or departments that would make us stand out in the crowd. Our institutional title, Professor Chang said, unlike that of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), does not have an easy-to-establish brand identity. Our programmes, from the days when we were set up, are not as vocationally oriented as those in optometry, hotel management, physiotherapy, fashion design, hotel management, and the like, now the staples of courses offered by Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "Our academic profile owes much to our origin and history," said Professor Chang. "We were in no position to offer similar practical programmes because our founders and the UGC didn't plan for such courses and wouldn't have allowed it." Yet brand identity by its very nature is fickle and elusive. One's reputation is often at odds with one's self-projected strength. Professor Chang cited the HKUST as an example. "HKUST was built on the expectation that it would become a pioneer science and technology university, but its recent rise to international fame is due to, of all things, its MBA programme."

So, what's more important? To be known in the community as a practical institution excelling in a handful of disciplines? Or to be recognized as a general university providing quality and innovative education? "One can hardly say that Oxford and Stanford are known for one or two subject areas, rather than for their overall quality and standard," he explained. Professor Chang said that while we welcome, and strive to attain, international recognition in some academic disciplines, CityU's real contributions lie in its whole rather than in its parts. "Our defining characteristic is our willingness and ability to anticipate and manage change," said Professor Chang. After all, we are the first university in the world to have introduced a Web-based Chinese civilization course and the first in Hong Kong to implement an on-line course registration system, to name only two examples. Students of CityU have been, and will be, immersed in this innovative learning environment and, the President said, it's only a matter of time until they will benefit from it. Ten or 15 years from now, the number of our alumni will double, or even triple, the present total of 50,000. By then, many will be in the prime of their careers, holding key management and supervisory positions in industry and commerce, and helping Hong Kong meet its challenges. "Innovation and adaptation to change will be what Hong Kong demands most from its youthful leaders in its race to become a knowledge society," said Professor Chang. "He are instilling in our students a broad world outlook and a positive and resilient attitude towards life and work."

Will the UGC's research/teaching classification, if implemented, signal a shift in our mission? The President said "Walking on two legs"of teaching and research is still our basic strategy. Although the two are interrelated, the President pointed out that teaching will be our first leg forward. The quality of our undergraduate education will be the solid foundation on which, like all great universities, CityU's reputation will be made and its contribution to society determined. "On top of our quality and innovative teaching, we also have the extra credit earned from our scholarly, innovative research work," Professor Chang said. In a recent Senate meeting, the President urged all academic staff to become good teachers and in his 4 February meeting with all the chair professors, he reiterated the "two legs" strategy and the importance of teaching as our fundamental mission.

Yet with all local universities now staffed by eminent scholars, the President does not believe that some universities should be singled out and arbitrarily designated as second-tier teaching establishments. Hong Kong industry has few large-scale R&D facilities. Innovations in a knowledge-based economy--be they scientific, technological or social in nature--almost as a rule come from the researchers-scholars at universities. In the past 10 or 15 years, local universities have attracted a number of eminent scholars of international standing to come and serve Hong Kong. "To strip these researchers of a chance to carry out research or to dismantle the labs already set up would be a crime to Hong Kong and China," he said.

The President doesn't believe that certain academic departments should be confined to one or two universities alone, to the exclusion of others. "There's no reason, for example, that we can't have an English department when another has been established elsewhere," he said. And often people talk of overlap and duplication when their eyes are trained on the 6.7 million people in Hong Kong itself. But in Professor Chang's vision, local universities should set their sights on serving the 45 million population of the Pearl River Delta, the 80 million of Guangdong province and even the 200 million of South China. "Our influence and experience will radiate out and impact on a bigger audience," he said. And in fact, this is exactly the niche foreign universities are looking for when they approach us for collaboration.


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